Viking River Cruises Review
Recently, Viking River Cruises invited me to sail up the Rhine River and explore Switzerland, Germany, France and The Netherlands on their classic Rhine Getaway river cruise. The entire trip was calm and relaxing and I felt like it struck the perfect balance of sightseeing and leisure! I’ve taken many river cruises with family before and immediately knew my mom would love the smaller atmosphere, quaint towns and relaxing vibe, so I brought her along for the trip!
I know river cruising is not for everyone so if you’re curious about Viking specifically or more generally wondering what there is to see and do along the Rhine River, I thought I’d recap our trip to show you the highlights.
I would recommend this trip if you enjoy small colorful towns, World War II history and good food.
Planning a European river cruise?
Rhine Getaway Itinerary
We sailed from Basel, Switzerland up north on the Rhine River and ended at Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Viking also offers the same route in reverse, from Amsterdam to Basel so you can pick either. For a couple stops on the journey, boats running in opposite cities are docked together.
We had a wonderful time and especially loved how organized the entire Viking journey was, from pre-departure to on-board, everything was seamless. Also unlike many other cruises or guided tours, almost everything was included, which made it feel like a truly relaxing vacation.
Here’s a snapshot of our 7-day itinerary and what we got up to each day!
Day 1: Arrive in Basel, Switzerland
We arrived in the small, quaint town of Basel after our international flight. This was the general arrival / travel date so we expected to just check in and relax but discovered that Viking organized a guided walking tour of the town. That was a nice surprise!
There’s also the option to arrive a couple days early and/or stay a couple days late. If you are thinking of this, here’s a quick guide to the best hotels in Basel to help with accommodation.
Basel is an underrated tourist attraction and the third largest city in Switzerland. The town has a gorgeous Medieval center and plenty of world-class art museums. There’s a reason Art Basel is held here!
We checked out the Romanesque cathedral, took endless pictures of the colorful medieval buildings and headed back to our ship to relax and meet everyone for cocktails and dinner. A great first day!
Read more: An Afternoon in Basel, Switzerland’s Most Underrated City!
Day 2: Germany’s Black Forest & Colmar, France
On our second day, we sailed northward to dock at Breisach, Germany. In the morning, we learned how to make cuckoo-clocks, put together Black Forest cake and walked a bit throughout the Black Forest.
The wooded mountain range is the site of many local legends and populated all over with black fir trees. If you like hiking, the mountains are wonderful!
In the afternoon, we signed up for an optional tour to Colmar. Located in the Alsace Lorraine region, the town is part of France but throughout much of history, changed hands between Germany and France. You’ll find lots of German and French spoken as a result!
I highly recommend visiting this quaint medieval town. Every street looks perfectly preserved and it’s quite colorful. We wandered mostly on our own, ducking into gelato shops and chocolate stores while enjoying the colorful, medieval feel.
Read more: The Most Picturesque Alsatian Town of Colmar
Day 3: Strasbourg, France
If you skip the optional to Colmar, no worries! Strasbourg is its larger cousin and also located in Alsace, France.
We had a wonderful guide for this day who guided us throughout the small canals, pointing out colorful streets and letting us know about Strasbourg’s tangled history in the hands of Germany and France.
Strasbourg occupies a strategic position on the Rhine River and is the ninth largest city in France. It’s home to many European councils and organizations, like the European Court of Human Rights (a building built like a ship) and the Council of Europe.
For the most part, we stuck to the Old Medieval Town but drove through the modern section. Highly recommend a visit to the Cathedral!
Read more: 24 Hours in Strasbourg (coming soon)
Day 4: Heidelberg, Germany
Heidelberg is a university town with a energetic, small town feel. In the morning, we visited Heidelberg Castle, which perhaps should be called a ruined fortress, as much of it was destroyed by lightening, fires and war.
The ruins and castle are built high above the city and the observation terrace is well worth a look! Meanwhile, the city was almost entirely spared from bomb attacks during World War II and it’s narrow streets and baroque charm remain largely intact.
We explored Heidelberg’s Old Town (Altstadt) by walking along the main shopping street Hauptstrasse. This is actually the longest shopping street in Europe! For the most part, I spotted large chain stores & restaurants.
I actually recommend skipping this street to explore the quaint alleyways and backstreets instead. Much more picturesque!
Read more: The Best of Heidelberg Germany in 1 Day
Day 5: Rhine River Castles & Koblenz, Germany
By day 5, we had reached the middle Rhine and spent our morning above deck watching the gorgeous small German towns and castles along both sides of the Rhine River. Our Viking program director gave a guided tour along the way, pointing out castles left and right.
Many of them are situated high above local towns and we saw lots of German camper vans parked at the base. I recommend bringing a pair of binoculars for this part, as some of the castles can be set a bit farther away and the detail through a zoom is incredible.
By afternoon, we reached Koblenz, a city set at the mouth of two rivers. We explored Marksburg Castle and wandered a bit on our own after. This was another ruined fortress high above the river. Interesting history, but wear good shoes! The entire castle is unpaved, rocky and entirely uneven.
A couple others from the cruise did the optional dinner excursion on this day and raved about it.
Read more: A Photo Diary of Pretty Rhine Castles
Day 6: Cologne, Germany
During the Holy Roman Empire, Cologne was the largest medieval town in Europe. Naturally, it’s Gothic cathedral is the hallmark draw! The nice thing about this stop is the ship can dock right into town, so you can join the tour or explore on your own.
We explored the Kölner Dom’s interior and were suitably awed. If you want a great view, Viking offers an optional tour that takes you all the way to the very top! I had already been to Cologne on a previous trip so instead, we opted for a palace excursion.
We visited Augustusburg Castle, one of two gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site classified as Bruhl Palaces. The castle was once home to the prince-archbishops of Cologne and is decked out in gold, marble and all-around extravagance.
I particularly liked the massive entryway staircase which was gilded and made my mouth drop open when we turned the corner. Highly recommend this day trip if you love castles half as much as I do!
The interiors were really unique and the guided tour was excellent. After the main palace, we did a quick tour of the hunting lodge as well, which was just as stunning.
Read more: Exploring Cologne (coming soon)
Day 7: Kinderdijk, The Netherlands
Kinderdijk is home to the Netherlands’ famous windmills. I’ll admit I didn’t know too much about the country outside of Amsterdam and our guide was quite helpful to explain the history of the nation and the purpose of its many windmills. Much of the Netherlands would sink, were it not for windmills to pump away water.
We even got to tour inside the home of a windmill keeper (see photos of a windmill interior here!). What I didn’t realize was that windmill caretakers actually lived inside them with their families!
I thought the interiors were particularly interesting and our guide mentioned that some Dutch families managed to fit 13 children inside.
They’re quite small so I noticed lots of hooks for hanging, curved bunk-bed type rooms and lots of stair ladders. The Dutch windmill keepers also had a number of really unique boats which I took too many pictures of!
Fun fact: Kinderdijk is in the region of Holland in the nation of The Netherlands where the people speak Dutch.
Read more: Visiting A Dutch Windmill Home (and other day trips from Amsterdam!)
The Rhine Getaway Cruise
One thing I liked about sailing with Viking is how leisurely the day to day pace is. There’s generally an opportunity to sight see in the morning and afternoon, with one included tour and one optional tour.
We chose to do 2 optionals and on the other days, relaxed on board or went into town to explore on our own! It was a well-balanced pace and I truly felt “on vacation”.
Here’s a recap of our daily itinerary with Viking:
|Day 1||Arrive in Basel, Switzerland|
|Day 2||Morning: Sail to the Black Forest
Afternoon: Explore Colmar, France
|Day 3||Explore Strasbourg, France|
|Day 4||Morning: Explore Heidelberg’s Castle and Old Town.
Evening: Stop in Rudesheim
|Day 5||Morning: See German castles along the Rhine River
Afternoon: Visit Koblenz, Germany
|Day 6||Morning: Visit Cologne, Germany
Afternoon: Day trip to Bruhl Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
|Day 7||See dutch windmills at Kinderdijk. Arrive in Amsterdam in late evening.|
How River Cruises Differ vs. Ocean Cruises
Many of our stops were small European villages and medium sized cities, so we felt like we were able to see all the top sights without missing anything.
The best part? enjoying the comfort of a luxurious ship without worrying about transportation from town to town and only unpacking once.
I think most of us are familiar with large ocean liners that sail to the Caribbean. River cruises offer a very different experience – they’re much smaller ships, typically seating only 150-200 passengers. The Viking Hlin ship that I was on had about 150 passengers and approximately 60 crew members, if I recall correctly.
In general rivers are much calmer than the open seas and you won’t have to worry about rough seasickness. We did a fun tour of the wheelhouse and learned from the Captain that Viking ships utilize four propellers instead of a traditional rudder. Because of this, they have the flexibility to turn each propeller a full 360 degrees for precision and smooth sailing so you shouldn’t experience any seasickness on board.
More About the Sights, Less About On-Board Entertainment
River cruising is a much more intimate experience, with unreserved seating at meal times so you get to mix and mingle with almost everyone on board by the end (if you want!). There’s perhaps less on-board entertainment (no nightclubs or casinos on board) but each evening people congregated in the lounge by the bar and Viking had an on-board pianist. A couple nights during the week, Viking hosted either singers, dancers or local activities. My favorite was the glass blowing demonstration by a glass master from Germany! He was quite an artist and had different glassblowing techniques than what I saw when I went to Venice.
The number one reason why I like river cruises so much is because you get to see many small towns and sights in a leisurely fashion. Depending on your journey, you stop in a new town every day or so and can get on and off the ship easily and on your own pace without queuing for hours! (When I went on my cruise to Cuba, we received a group number each evening for the next day’s stop and disembarking into town took a good 2 hours, depending on which group you were in. I’m pretty impatient and hated the long lines)
Which is the Best European River Cruise?
I wouldn’t say there’s a “best” European cruise per se, but there are a couple main rivers in Europe that offer river cruise experiences. The most popular are the Rhine River, the Elba and the Danube.
- The Rhine River runs from the Swiss Alps through the Franco-German border and empties into the North Sea up in the Netherlands. This is the route we took.
- The Elba River is a major Central European river and predominantly flows through Germany and the Czech Republic. A small bit flows through Austria and Poland.
- The Danube River is quite long, flowing through 10 countries through Central and Eastern Europe. It starts in Germany and flows along the borders of Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine before emptying into the Black Sea. I did this route years ago with family and loved it because I felt like I saw so much of Eastern Europe in one go. Lots of quaint, small towns perfect for a quick afternoon visit!
Viking Cruises Review
You can see the route we took in the Rhine River cruise map to the right.
Flights & Our Pre-Trip Experience
Once you book your Viking river cruise, the fun part is checking out the daily itinerary and browsing the optional excursions! I was really impressed with Viking’s interactive website called My Viking Journey. They have a handy map to show the journey along the Rhine River and make it easy to see what your options are each day. If you happen to pick an optional that conflicts with an included tour or a different optional tour, the website lets you know immediately.
Viking also offers airfare, which I recommend as they have relationships with partner airlines and can usually find flights cheaper than you can do on your own! If you do end up booking your airfare through Viking, they also include round trip transfers, which we found quite handy after long travel days. Our bus picked us up in Basel and left straightaway, which we really appreciated. None of that waiting around for 50 passengers to get picked up! On our departure, we had a very early flight so they arranged a cab direct to the airport – everything is totally taken care of.
Our On-board Experience on Viking’s Hlin Ship
We sailed aboard the Viking Hlin. All of Viking’s fleet are individually named after different Nordic Gods and Goddesses and while many of the river cruise ships are similar or even identical, the small touches and art are unique. Each ship has a giant painting of the Nordic god at the top of the main staircase, dedicated to the deity it’s named after!
Having sailed on a couple other river cruises, I loved how distinctively luxurious the Viking ship and rooms were. Our Veranda stateroom was spacious, bright and airy with minimalist Nordic furniture and a cozy balcony. The ships are well designed to really maximize space and cabins feature a giant closet and tons of drawers to put away your clothes, should you wish to fully unpack. Most river cruises are quite cozy and I typically keep my clothes in packing cubes… this was the first time I’ve fully unpacked!
There’s also a flat screen TV to listen to the daily on-boarding speech (if you don’t want to leave the comfort of your room) or to check the weather, watch TV, etc. Our cabin had plenty of outlets, both European and American, so I could easily keep all my electronics charged.
My favorite part of our floor was the coffee & espresso bar to grab pastries and java any time of day. I helped myself to endless madeleines and double dark chocolate muffins.
Oh! I almost forgot to mention – Viking includes wifi on-board free of charge. I thought that was such a nice touch given that I’m addicted to my phone. Internet service is a slower than usual, as it’s satellite service on the river and therefore inherently slower.
If you’ve cruised before you’ll appreciate this luxury! All other cruise lines charge exorbitant internet fees and still have slow service.
The Viking Ship & Cabin
Our room was kept immaculately clean and always stocked with fresh fruit and water, thanks to a diligent cleaning staff. I’m a bit of a germaphobe and really felt at home on board.
The entire ship is airy and light-filled and despite it being a small river ship, it feels more spacious and open than some large cruise ships. Above on the sun deck, they even have a small herb garden to season meals freshly.
In contrast, I once stayed on a ship where you had to step up into the bathroom and when the door was open, half the cabin space was used up – naturally, half the time I forgot the step existed and face planted. Viking cabins have a pocket door so that the cabins feel spacious with glass door showers and fully openable doors that tightly seal, so water doesn’t get everywhere.
Viking also clearly pays attention to the small details – they design everything with care, from heated bathroom floors to angling the hallways to maximize cabin space… large-flip open toiletries that don’t leave you struggling to open them, high quality European fixtures and leather staircase railings… I could go on endlessly. It’s really clear on-board that Viking don’t skimp out on customer service and they all added up to make a seamless vacation!
Viking’s Included Walking Tours
Each day, there’s an included guided walking tour. All the local guides were quite knowledgeable and Viking provides headsets so you can clearly hear.
There’s even a designated group for those who wish to tour at a slower pace. What I really liked was that there’s no pressure to stay with the tour. You’re free to start with the tour and slip away if you find a restaurant you like or somewhere you want to linger (although it’s nice to let the guide know so they don’t wait for you). They really encourage you to make the most of your trip.
Meals & Dining
All three meals are included on-board and you have the choice to take meals either in the formal dining room or upstairs in the more casual Aquavit restaurant. We have nothing but great things to say about the meals!
Outdoor or Indoor Options – If you like to socialize and want a formal 3-course menu dinner, try the formal dining room on the main floor. If you want more relaxed, casual food with perhaps a table for just 2, the Aquavit upstairs is a great alternative. We had lunch a couple times there and it’s quite nice to see the river views and sit outside.
Local Cuisine – Viking also makes a effort to include local cuisine. One night we had an Austrian / German night, with local specialties like sauerkraut, sausages, pretzels, schnitzel and plenty of German beer. It was a themed night, where the dining room transformed into checkered tablecloths, the staff put on their lederhosen and mini kegs were emptied!
All Inclusive – Wines are included during dinner times, which I personally haven’t seen on any other cruise! There’s also the option to purchase a Silver Spirits drink package if you wish to indulge in wine, beer and/or soft drinks before or after dinner.
Planning a European river cruise?
European River Cruise – Trip Planning Checklist
We opted to extend our stay in Europe after the cruise. Viking offers both pre and post extensions, which are a fun way to see more of Europe and combine the best of both worlds (guided group tours with individual trips).
For our flights, we took advantage of Viking’s flight booking service. We set fare alerts and browsed for flights on our own, and after comparing it to the Viking customer service rep, found that they were able to get us a better deal.
Be sure to get travel insurance for your river cruise. River cruises are highly dependent on local water levels, and abnormally low water can negatively impact your trip by forcing the boat to re-route. Don’t end up disappointed – travel insurance will help when you need it most. I use and recommend World Nomads travel insurance.
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